For the third week in a row, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs won a game by the smallest possible margin – 1 point. Trent Hodkinson yet again proved he is currently the most clutch player in the NRL by nailing the game-winning Field Goal for the second consecutive week. Here are the ups and downs of the historic victory.
- Bulldogs make history: In 107 years of Rugby League’s existence, never has one team consecutively won 3 games by a single point. Until the Bulldogs did on Good Friday, that is. For the first time in the history of the sport, a team has won three games in a row by one point. Absolutely incredible. This is not only a testament to the grit and determination of the team, qualities of championship teams across all sports, but the late game nerves of steel the team possesses, especially in the halves, and especially in the player who warrants the next point.
- Trent Hodkinson, take a bow: What Trent Hodkinson has achieved the past two weeks is nothing short of special, so much so that I am quickly running out of superlatives apt enough to convey just how special he is playing. As explored in detail in the analysis of the Warriors win last week, he came up with mature decision making on the back of his game changing intercept, kicked the sideline conversion of the subsequent Try, kicked a penalty goal to tie the game, then hit the Field Goal to win it. Come the end of this game, it seemed like Deja Vu. However, what he achieved this week may have just been slightly more difficult. He quite literally hit the 3 toughest kicks that exist for a goal-kicker. In ascending order of toughness (as was the case for him in the game), he first nailed one from the left sideline after Mitch Brown finished a swift backline movement on the back of a terrific pass from Fullback Sam Perrett, with Brown going airborne and absorbing contact whilst in flight right on the sideline as he managed to plant the ball down with one hand. A great effort, which Hodkinson then converted. Second, Hodkinson capped off a similarly remarkable finish by Corey Thompson on the opposite side of the field. On he end of another backline movement, Thompson made two defenders miss with a neat show of footwork right on the sideline, then broke through a third defender on the Try Line to just get the ball down. Three defenders had a favourable chance to stop him, and Thompson still made the play. That is a phenomenal effort. This Try was scored right on the sideline as well, this time on the right hand side, the ‘bad’ side for a right footed kicker, which I’ll explain in a second. Hodkinson converted it successfully, making the score 14-12 with 11 minutes left. Normally, those two kicks for a goal-kicker – the attempt from either sideline, are often given the tag as ‘most difficult’. Although they are both incredibly tough kicks, neither are the toughest. Let me explain why.
Whilst the kicks from the sidelines are both incredibly difficult, the toughest angle for a right footed kicker comes at the spot in between the right post and the right sideline. Why? For most kickers, the ball naturally curves opposite the foot they kick with. YouTube Johnathan Thurston or Hazem El Masri for the greatest exploiters of this phenomenon, often called ‘hooking’ the ball. (I’ll save you the trouble, Thurston here, El Masri here). Not everybody exploits the curve or ‘hooks’ the ball as much as these two, but most of the time a certain amount of curve is natural. This means that for a right-footed kicker like Hodkinson, a certain degree of movement in the air must be accounted for when aligning the ball on the tee. In this example on the right hand side of the field, the ball is moving across the face of the posts rather than into the face of the posts as is the case on the left hand side of the field. Hence the right hand side of the field is termed the bad side for right footed kickers (and vice versa with the left/left footed kickers). Now, this allowance is the most difficult to account for from the aforementioned spot, not the sidelines, as from the sidelines, you have more distance between the tee and the posts to allow for the natural movement of the ball once kicked. At the point between the posts and the sideline, a kicker is often in a catch-22 and is forced to over think this allowance, as they are still relatively close to the posts, but not close enough for the kick to require no allowance for the natural arc away from the foot used to kick the ball. With goal-kicking being as mental as it is about kicking ability, this potential conundrum makes the shot a nightmare for many kickers. It is basically an awkward spot on the field where calculating the angle and trajectory is most tricky, as the angle is not enough to warrant a significant allowance for curve, but not close enough for account for next to none either, and figuring out that balance between curve, angle and power is the most difficult to equate at this spot on the field, not the sidelines.
Okay, hopefully I haven’t lost you. Back to the game. 2 sets later, the Bulldogs kick the ball high on last tackle. Having just scored a key Try in getting the Bulldogs back into the game, an enthused Corey Thompson chases the kick hard, putting ex-Bulldog Bryson Goodwin under pressure to make a clean catch. Thompson arrives moments after the ball does, hits Goodwin hard and dislodges the ball. This is a great result for the Bulldogs on its own. Knock on Rabbitohs, giving the Bulldogs a scrum and a full attacking set in good field position. Right? Wrong. Another Rabbitohs player picks up the ball whilst in an offside position after Goodwin loses it forwards. Penalty for offside. The Bulldogs, down 2 points and gifted the potential to level the scores via a penalty goal attempt from Hodkinson. The spot? The aforementioned toughest one on the field for a right footer, to tie the game. Hodkinson nails it. 14-14. Now here is the key point. Hodkinson hit the three toughest kicks a kicker can be asked to attempt, all in a big game comeback situation. Much like last week, if he misses just one of them the outcome could have been very different. Then after both Reynolds’ on the field traded misses (Josh for the Bulldogs and Adam for the Rabbitohs), the Bulldogs move down the field with some tough running, with Hodkinson now trusted to take the game-winning attempt. Just like his previous 3 attempts, this one a Field-Goal to win the game, the ball goes straight through the posts. ANZ Staidum erupts. Bulldogs 15-14. History made.
The only way the story of Trent Hodkinson thus far in 2014 could any further personify the term ‘clutch’, also detailed in the post-Warriors win analysis, is if he scored all the Tries too, which would just be diabolical. We have just ended Week 7 of a 26 week season, and I am already running out of superlatives capable of doing justice to what we are witnessing from Hodkinson. He is an unbelievable player in phenomenal, game-winning form. It’s almost inhuman to be as good as he is right now. What a treat this season has been for Bulldogs fans already, despite the heart palpatation-inducing nature of the past 3 victories.
- Kasiano comeback: As alluded to as a possibility in the preview for the game, Des Hasler named Sam Kasiano as a late addition to the NRL team, and he did not disappoint in his return. He ran hard, he did his best in defense and added a punch and spark to an already impressive forward pack for the Bulldogs. In the wake of the long term stint Frank Pritchard will be spending on the sideline, Kasiano could be a key contributor moving forward. His performance in his return is a great start to that being the case.
- Brown/Thompson finishes: They were already detailed in the essay that point #2 above ended up being, but I would be remiss not to mention them on their own, as they were incredibly difficult, odds-defying finishes for Tries that both Mitch Brown and Corey Thompson provided. Finishes that the win would be impossible without.
- Michael Ennis is tough: In what was another physical battle up front, it was Michael Ennis who stood up and lead the way with a tenacious display. This was despite a significant cut to the back of his head that required taping, headgear to secure the taping, and then taping on top of both of those to truly stem the bleeding. Ennis, back to being the team’s lone captain, lead by example. His hit that stonewalled Sam Burgess at full pace exemplified this best. Burgess was returning a goal-line dropout as hard and fast as he is capable of charging with a football. Ennis met and exceeded his velocity, stopping him dead in his tracks. The act on its own was an impressive and inspirational display of toughness. But the best bit of the infectious nature of such displays was the player racing up beside him looking to make heavy contact. Who was it, you may ask? It was the oft-criticised but now in form Tony Williams, going out of his way to impose his big frame upon an opponent. Great stuff all around. On this note, Greg Eastwood also deserves a mention. Tough both with and without the ball. He is making key contributions to the team.
- Lafai’s impact: Tim Lafai appears right at home in the NRL. The Centre made significant plays in the comeback win, leading the game with 2 Linebreaks. It was not only the output of his efforts, but when they occurred. One Linebreak not only lead to a key Try, but his second one gave the team the field position it needed for what ended up being the game-winning Field Goal. Great efforts at key moments.
- Identity crisis: As an observer of Football, there was an overt difference between the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs. The Rabbitohs played to their strengths. It seemed as though they knew what they were good at, and gave those things all they had. The Bulldogs however seem to be lacking such an identity. Back in 2012 when they made the Grand Final, they were defined by a complex interplay of passing between the forwards (a rare trait for that position group), backed up by the deft and slick execution of the now prominent ‘block’ play, defined by 2 attacking runners, one running a straight line to the defense, and another sweeping across behind that player. Ben Barba was a big part of the success of this identity. He is now gone, and so too are not only his contributions to the schemes employed by the team, but his ability to create something out of nothing. Since his departure, the team has failed to regain many, if any signature strengths of play, and this is sure to contribute to the periods of stasis the team experiences throughout games. The same plays are often utilised, but the execution and spark just hasn’t been there. The contrast between the two teams in this regard was apparent – Souths seemed to know what they do well. The Bulldogs don’t seem to have that attacking identity yet post-Barba. Despite recent results, they team can’t count on winning by 1 point every week.
- Perrett’s hands: Sam Perrett has been terrific so far this season filling the Fullback role vacated by Ben Barba. However, he had two key drops in this one. One on a kcikoff, and one on a likely Try-scoring backline movement. To every potential detractor out there, everybody in the game of Rugby League drops the football every now and then, and this is no reason to jump all over the normally impressive Perrett, who yet again performed very well overall. But the two drops came at inopportune times for the team, and I’m sure Perrett himself would be the first to hold himself accountable for them.
- Sutton Try: By and large, the Bulldogs defense, particularly in their own red-zone was quite good. However, on the John Sutton Try, the line was guilty of a fundamental error – waiting for the player with the ball. In the field of play, this mistake isn’t so bad. Not waiting and letting the attacker get on the front foot would be preferred, but in general play, you can get away with it as you normally have some territory to give. On your own goal-line however, this leeway does not exist. As a defender, it is imperative you make the tackle whilst conceding as little ground as possible. Waiting for the player, as was the case in the Sutton Try, allowed the play to carry their momentum often over the top of the defender. When there is less than a metre behind you, conceding such ground often leads to a Try for the opposing offense, which is what materialsed here. Had the defense simply not waited, they stood a far better chance of stopping the charge from Sutton.
- Finucane & Browne on report: Both Dale Finucane and Tim Browne were involved in a lifting tackle, the kind of tackle the NRL is now trying to crack down on in the wake of the most unfortunate incident that happened to Alex McKinnon. Finucane barely played a role in the tackle, merely grabbing the ankle in more of a tripping type contribution. It was Browne who had the telltale sign in these tackles – the hand between the legs, which I believe is what should be cracked down on in particular. The majority of the lifting tackles that go wrong are a result of a defender having a hand or arms between the legs and lifting. Crack down heavily on this, and it should slowly disappear from the game. Also, if the penalty is blown as soon as the hand is put between the legs, the tackle can potentially be prevented. From what I’ve seen and heard, both should be able to escape suspension with early guilty pleas at the judiciary.
Stat of the game: Rabbitohs time spent in Bulldogs half: 53 minutes. Bulldogs time spent in Rabbitohs half: 27 minutes. The Rabbitohs essentially spent double the time in attacking territory than the Bulldogs did, and still couldn’t score enough point to win the game – a testament to the strength of the Bulldogs defense throughout the game.